So, having not been to a ground in Northamptonshire for quite a while, I found myself heading to an NN post code for the second time in five days, following my trip to Thrapston on Friday. This evening, the footballing fare was going to be an FA Cup Second Qualifying Round replay between AFC Rushden & Diamonds of Step 4 and Alfreton Town of Step 2. The teams had drawn 2-2 in Derbyshire at the weekend, with Diamonds being two goals to the good at one point. What made this game especially interesting for me was the draw for the next round which would see the winner of this game travelling to Amblecote to face my team, Stourbridge. So, feeling a bit like a spy, I parked up near(ish) to the ground, and made my way (minus Stourbridge jacket) to the stadium.
Just before the start of this season, Rushden were given the go ahead to move into Hayden Road and ground-share with Rushden & Higham United. I had been told before-hand that a lot of work had been done on the ground by a team of volunteers. Having not been to Hayden Road before, I can't say exactly what changes have been made to the ground but, what I can say, is that it is clear to see that a considerable amount of work has been done to make the ground fit for Step 4 and a very nice place to watch football.
The ground has what looks like a fairly new covered standing area behind the goal at the far end of the stadium, opposite from the town end. There is also a smallish covered seating area (The Mick George Stand) at this end of the ground, with a snack bar in between the two stands. On the far side, as well as the dugouts, there is another covered seating area. There is terracing behind the town end goal - which is backed by a row of houses - which also continues a little way around the Hayden Road side, stopping just short of another snack bar which is in the shadow of a large covered seating stand, currently not in use (or at least, wasn't in use on this evening). The pitch has a slight slope towards the town end of the ground but looked in good condition. All in all, it's a very tidy, compact ground that has clearly had some TLC applied to it in recent months. The only thing that the ground lacks is parking. There is no car park at the actual stadium and no scope to create any. Hayden Road has on street parking, but that soon gets filled up. The surrounding streets are all residential and not that easy to find spots. It is probably best to get there a little earlier, park in the town, and take a half-mile stroll to the ground.
When Alfreton did get the ball they relied very heavily on early, long, diagonal balls to their front pair of Craig Westcarr and Ricky German, most of which were dealt with well by the Diamonds back-line.
Rushden's wide players, Luke Fairlamb and Joel Gyasi, were causing plenty of problems for the Alfreton defence and, on a couple of occasions, The Whites got themselves into very good positions. With a little more composure in front of goal and a helping of luck, they could well have found themselves in front early on.
However, as the half wore on, The Reds started to get themselves back in the game. Their style was still noticeably more direct than Rushden, but some of the early balls to the front started to stick and the midfield was being given an opportunity to push up to help out.
Just after the half-hour mark one such Alfreton break led to a rash tackle and a free-kick out on the Reds right-wing. Brendon Daniels swung in a peach of a cross which was met by centre-half Tom Allan, who powered his header beyond Heath into the net. 0-1.
The goal temporarily took the wind out of the Rushden sails and Alfreton began enjoying their most dominant period of the game. On 41 minutes Daniels, who provided the first goal, latched onto a clearance 20 yards out and curled a lovely effort past the stranded Finlay who was grateful to see the ball smack the inside of his left-hand post and rebound to safety.
Then, with the clock almost on the 45 minute mark, Rushden conjured a deserved equaliser out of the blue. The ever-dangerous Luke Fairlamb picked up the ball out wide on the left, drifted past a defender, cut inside and unleashed an unstoppable, low drive past Elliott into the far corner for 1-1. There was barely rime to kick-off before the referee blew for half-time.
HT AFC Rushden & Diamonds 1 Alfreton Town 1. An entertaining half of football capped by a very good and deserved equaliser for Rushden.
Well, the answer is yes and no.
Without a doubt, Alfreton saw more of the ball in the second half and their direct style, getting the ball forward early, was starting to look far more threatening, presumably as the Rushden players started to tire. However, Diamonds still posed plenty of threat on the break and still didn't look like a team two divisions below their opponents.
The away side created an opportunity in the 71st minute where they really could and should have gone back into the lead. A break down the left led to a ball being whipped across the Diamonds six yard line. It was met at the back post by German, but he could only hit the side netting. A real let-off for Rushden, but not for too long. Two minutes later they conceded a free-kick around about 22 yards out and slightly to the left of their goal. Daniels lined it up and them hammered a beauty across Heath into the top corner. Great goal. 1-2.
Rushden certainly didn't give it up at this point, although they were starting to look far more vulnerable to the Alfreton raids. It did, however, take until the 86th minute for The Reds to finally make the game safe and even then it was with some fortune. A scramble in the box saw an attempted clearance come back of the German and ricochet into the net. 1-3.
FT Rushden & Diamonds 1 Alfreton Town 3. The scoreline looks a little harsh on Diamonds who, throughout the game, played the more entertaining brand of football IMO. However, all the nice football in the world doesn't win you games if you concede three goals. Credit to Alfreton who stuck to their game plan, which worked perfectly in the end.
Ground No. 137